Why JFK Kept a Coconut Shell in the Oval Office, as We Know He Had to Abandon His Torpedo Boat

Before John F. Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States, he was a lieutenant in the US Navy during WWII.

During his time in the Navy, an incident occurred involving Kennedy, PT-109 and a Japanese destroyer. It is from this incident that Kennedy Island got its name.

PT-109 was one of 15 patrol torpedo (PT) boats stationed in the Blackett Strait. It was also the boat that Kennedy was assigned to. The vessels had been sent to this area in an attempt to disrupt the Japanese supply convoy which ran through the strait.

The Americans encountered four Japanese destroyers. Three of these destroyers were acting as transport vessels while the fourth was the escort. The PT boats launched 30 torpedoes at the convoy but failed to damage any of the ships.

While none of the American boats were damaged, some had depleted their stock of torpedoes. These boats were ordered to return to port while those which still had torpedoes remained, hoping to have another go at the destroyers.

Kennedy on his navy patrol boat, the PT-109, in 1943.
Kennedy on his navy patrol boat, the PT-109, in 1943.

One of the boats that remained was PT-109 which rendezvoused with PT-162 and PT-169. These three vessels spread out to create a line across the strait. Nothing happened in the strait until 2:30 am on August 2, 1943.

Three hundred yards from PT-109, a Japanese destroyer came through the dark. At first, Kennedy thought that the shape was one of the other PT boats. When he saw that it was a destroyer, he attempted to turn his boat to bring the torpedoes in line.

The maneuvers came too late as the destroyer, the Amagiri, ripped the starboard aft side of PT-109. Many of the other crew members were knocked into the water by the impact. Engineer McMahon was below the deck. He escaped, although he was injured by exploding fuel.

Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer the Amagiri.
Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer the Amagiri.

The rest of the men were ordered to abandon ship by Kennedy who feared the boat was going to go up in flames.

The ignited fuel was eventually dispersed by waves from the destroyer and Kennedy ordered his men back to the wrecked boat. Once the men reached the vessel, they needed to locate the remaining crew members.

Four of the crew members were able to swim back to the wreckage on their own. McMahon was too injured so Kennedy swam out to him and Charles Harris.

Using a life-vest strap, Kennedy towed McMahon to the boat while encouraging Harris who was already exhausted. The rest of the crew made it back to the boat where they considered their situation.

Lieutenant (junior grade) Kennedy (standing at right) with his PT-109 crew, 1943.
Lieutenant (junior grade) Kennedy (standing at right) with his PT-109 crew, 1943.

The situation was not a good one as all of the men were exhausted, some were injured, and others had become sick from the fuel fumes. The other US boats in the area were nowhere to be seen. The crew was afraid to use flares as this could draw the attention of the Japanese.

Although the vessel was still floating, it was taking on water and would soon capsize.

The only option available to the crew was to abandon the wreckage and make their way to land. The distance to the closest inlet was three and a half miles, which was not daunting to Kennedy. He had been on the Harvard swim team.

But not all of the crew were strong swimmers. In fact, two of the crew could not swim at all.

The two men who could not swim were tied to a plank that the other crew members towed. Kennedy arrived at the island known as Plum Pudding first but was so exhausted that he had to be helped onto the beach by the man he was towing. However, his night was far from over.

USS PT-109 stowed on board the “Liberty Ship”  the SS Joseph Stanton for transportation to the Pacific.
USS PT-109 stowed on board the “Liberty Ship”  the SS Joseph Stanton for transportation to the Pacific.

A passing Japanese barge prompted Kennedy to swim back out and look for the other PT boats in the area. Making his way to Ferguson Passage, he treaded water for an hour without seeing other US boats.

On the return journey, he had to stop at another island to rest before getting back to Plum Pudding.

The next day, Kennedy and his men would set out for Olasana Island hoping to find supplies, but the coconuts there sickened some of the men.

Leaving the crew on the island, Kennedy and George Ross went to Naru Island. There was a wrecked Japanese vessel on the beach along with some supplies.

There were also two men at the wreck who were identified as islanders. Kennedy tried to hail them, but they became frightened and left in a canoe. Kennedy took the canoe they found into Ferguson Passage that night but was unable to see any friendly vessels.

Pre-World War II USN file photo of the Amagiri.
Pre-World War II USN file photo of the Amagiri.

He then made his way back to the crew on Olasana with the supplies, leaving Ross on Naru. There he found that the two men from earlier had made contact with the rest of the crew and were islander scouts for the Allies.

The next day, Kennedy and the two men made their way back to Naru were they showed him how to scratch a message into a coconut.

The message was sent with the two men, but Kennedy and Ross did not wait patiently. They took a two-man canoe provided by the islanders into Ferguson Passage, hoping to find help.

The rough conditions nearly sank the canoe, and the two of them barely made it back to Naru. The next day, eight islanders arrived with a message from Lt. A. Evans telling Kennedy to make his way to Evan’s post on Gomu Island.

Coconut Shell Paperweight – Original coconut on which the rescue message was inscribed by Kennedy to rescue the crew of the PT-109 and delivered by natives, Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, of the Solomon Islands.
Coconut Shell Paperweight – Original coconut on which the rescue message was inscribed by Kennedy to rescue the crew of the PT-109 and delivered by natives, Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, of the Solomon Islands.

Read another story from us: 26 U.S. Presidents in the Military – Many Saw Combat

After ensuring that his men were fed, the islanders hid Kennedy under palm fronds and made their way to Gomu Island. Six days after the sinking of PT-109, Kennedy made it to Gomu, but a rescue mission still had to be planned. Kennedy insisted on being part of the rescue mission which was successful.

The leadership and bravery displayed by Kennedy led to him being awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal as well as the Purple Heart.

The incident also led Plum Pudding to be renamed as Kennedy Island.